Monday, July 22, 2013

R.I.P.: Jim Kelly, Part II

Jim "The Dragon" Kelly
May 5, 1946 - June 29, 2013
Handsome, ass-kicking Afro-American martial artist of questionable thespian talents who made some fun movies during his quick rise and fall in Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Died of cancer at the age of 67.

For Part I, go here.

Black Samurai
(1977, dir. Al Adamson)
Also known as Black Terminator and The Freeze Bomb. So, what's left for an actor after an Oscar Williams film? Well, how about an Al Adamson movie? We love Al Adamson movies — they're absolutely terrible! (See, for example, our review of his instant non-classic Dracula vs. Frankenstein [1971].) If you don't know Adamson's films, believe us, they are true eye-openers. Yes, Virginia, you do not need any notable directorial talent to become a director, you just need to be an auteur.
It is literally impossible to talk of the great filmmaker without making some mention of his memorable (if tragic) demise, but we've done it so often we'll let Teleport City tell the tale: "In June of 1995, legendary (some would counter with 'infamous') b-movie kingpin Al Adamson was murdered by a handyman he'd contracted to complete some work on his ranch. The body was discovered entombed beneath a newly poured concrete slab that occupied the space where Adamson's hot tub once stood. The producer-director's disappearance piqued the curiosity of friends, and one in particular became suspicious of the concrete slab, noting that Al loved his hot tub perhaps more than anything else he owned and never would have had it removed. And indeed that’s where they found his body. The handyman, Fred Fulford, was arrested and, in a trial that dragged on until March, 2000, finally convicted and sentenced to 25-to-life."
Adamson's flick here, by the way, isn't one of his many cut-and-paste jobs but is based on the first of a series of pulp novels by the Afro-American author Marc Olden, who died in 2003, featuring Robert Sand, the "Black Samurai" of the title. Olden's Samurai series lasted eight titles between '74 and '75, the first title of which is the basis of Adamson's film adaptation here. Black Samurai was Adamson's fifth but perhaps only second "true" attempt at Blaxploitation. (His first, Mean Mother [1974 / trailer], is actually a recut conversion of León Klimovsky's Run for Your Life / El hombre que vino del odio [1971]; his second, Dynamite Brothers [1972 / trailer], is more a cheesy multiculti [Chino-Afro-American] chopsocky exploiter than straight Blaxploitation; and his Uncle Tom's Cabin [1976 / full film] is actually more a B&D/S&M movie aimed towards those who like seeing naked, buff Afro-Americans get punished. But just before Black Samurai, Adamson made Black Heat [1976 / full film], a 'serious' attempt at true Blaxploitation.)
Film Father, which if of the opinion that "everything in Black Samurai is second-rate", explains the plot as follows: "Special agent Robert Sand (Jim Kelly) is asked by the CIA to save his girlfriend Toki (Essie Lin Chia) after she’s kidnapped by a voodoo cult led by the evil Janicot (Bill Roy). It turns out Toki is also the daughter of a top Eastern ambassador, and Janicot's ransom demand is top-secret information for a new weapon, the 'freeze bomb.' Sand's search takes him from Hong Kong to California to Miami, facing bad men, bad women, and bad animals (Janicot's pet is a killer vulture!)." Of the film's sexpot Synne, otherwise known as Marilyn Joi, with whom Sand (Kelly) is playing tennis at the start of the film, Adventures in Nerdliness says: "I only knew about [her] from one thing; the Cleopatra Schwartz faux trailer in Kentucky Fried Movie (1977 / trailer). Turns out she did a lot more films. She was in Hammer (1972) with Fred Williamson. Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976 / trailer) with Dyanne Thorne as one of Ilsa's sidekicks, 'Velvet'. [...] As well as Nurse Sherri (1975 / trailer), Blazing Stewardesses (1975 / trailer), The Candy Tangerine Man (1975 / TV spot) and Detroit 9000 (1973). She also had an uncredited appearance in Coffy (1973) with Pam Grier. [...] She also made many appearances in the men's magazine Players." (The cleavage shot of  Marilyn Joi below comes from Temple of Schlock.)
The Cleopatra Schwartz faux trailer from Kentucky Fried Movie (1977):

The Tattoo Connection
 (1978, dir. Tso Nam Lee) 

AKA E yu tou hei sha xing. After Hot Potato (1976), the second film that at one point was sold as a sequel to Black Belt Jones (1974) — one of its AKA titles is Black Belt Jones 2 — despite the fact that the name of the ass-kicking Brother Kelly plays is "Lucas." Hong Kong director Tso Nam Lee is an unjustly underrated independent chopsocky filmmaker whose best known film is probably the Bruceploitation movie Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976 / trailer), starring Bruce Li. (Dig the swinging title music  to the credit sequence of his 1976 film The Hot, the Cool and the Vicious.)
Opinions to the film vary greatly, ranging from David Knight's statement "The Tattoo Connection is worth checking out for Jim Kelly fans as his fight scenes are among the best that he has ever been in" at Firefox News to The Video Vacuum's disparaging opinion that "in this inept but sporadically amusing Kung Fu flick [...] Kelly isn't given much to do and the plot is slow moving but the action isn't bad and the dubbing is fairly hilarious." Kung Fu Connection, which says "Considered a sore spot on the respective careers of all involved [...] and you will find it hard to fathom how the director of Eagle's Claw [1978 / trailer] could stoop this low), The Tattoo Connection is a Z grade exploitation quickie armed with the IQ of a walnut," gives the plot as follows: "Lucas (Kelly) is sent from the States to investigate a diamond racket on the streets of Hong Kong, only to find flash bastard Lu (Chan Sing) pimping hos and Tin-hao (Dorian Tan) kicking people in the head. [...] You could argue this is a fine example of the East meets West culture clash highlighting society's ills whilst tackling some uncompromising truths without flinching or thinking. But then it might also just be a cheap and hideous turd of a film. You decide." The soundtrack was first film soundtrack ever composed by the US-born Swedish ex-pat musician Anders Nelsson, who went on to do music for the anti-abortion film Xin jiang shi xian sheng / Mr. Vampire 1992 (1992 / fan-made trailer), Meng gui cha guan / The Haunted Copshop (1987 / trailer) and  Jiang shi jia zu: Jiang shi xian sheng xu ji / Mr. Vampire II (1986 / trailer), among others.  He also did non-film music, like the psychedelic tune below.
Anders Nelsson — Black Ode to Jill (Where's Jack?):

Death Dimension
(1978, dir. Al Adamson)
Aka Black Eliminator, Freeze Bomb, Icy Death, The Kill Factor and Death Dimension. The "Freeze Bomb" of Adamson's Black Samurai (1977) becomes the MacGuffin of Death Dimension, the script of which was provided by the German-born and forgotten Z-level drive-in director / producer / scriptwriter Harry Hope (26 May 1926-6 Nov 1988), who also brought us such treasures as Hateman (1989 / rape scene), Doomsday Machine (1972 / full film), Smokey and the Judge (1980 / they sing) and Enter Another Dragon (1981).
As Eat My Brains explains, "Death Dimension is a very strange little film indeed and a mad mixture of many genres. It's Blaxploitation, it's Kung-Fu, it's an action flick and it's also a sci-fi flick, but by the end the film seems to be far worse than the sum of its parts and makes little sense." Beardy Freak figured out the plot: "Dr Mason (T.E. Forman) has created a 'Freeze Bomb' for initially good weather controlling reasons (!) but the project has been hijacked by the evil criminal mastermind 'The Pig' (Harold Sakata, he of James Bond, 'Odd Job' fame) who wants the bomb as a weapon (shown during an unintentionally funny scene where four men have snowflakes exploded over them, supposedly freezing them to death!) to sell to the highest bidder. But crafty Dr Mason has put all the specs for the bomb on a microchip which he has inserted into the scalp (!) of his assistant Felicia (Patch Mackenzie of Graduation Day [1981 / trailer / full film] and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive [1987 / trailer]), who has run away. Martial Arts operative Detective John Ash (Jim Kelly) is brought in on the case by Capt. Gallagher (ill fated ex-Bond George Lazenby [of Who Saw Her Die? (1972)]) and with his Chinese Kung Fu friend Li [...] (the hysterically monikered Myron Bruce Lee) they are told to find Felicia before 'The Pig' and his henchman do and stop him selling the deadly 'Freeze Bomb'…"
An early highpoint of the movie, as Bad Movies explains: "At one point Ash visits the Mustang Ranch to look for clues. To hide his real reasons for coming, he has to pick out a prostitute. Looking at that lineup, I think that he was choosing the lesser of multiple ugly prospects. Those can't be the same girls that made the ranch famous, or were standards much lower back then? Well, Ash does not seem to find the prostitute attractive either. He bails out of the room and snoops around until he encounters several toughs who he defeats with his martial arts." In regard to the acting — something not usually found in an Al Adamson film — Film Critics United says: "Some of the worst acting known to man. Mr. 'OddJob' Sakata could theoretically be the worst actor ever. Myron Bruce Lee might be a close second. Jim Kelly looked like Paul Robeson compared to those two. But he did revert back to Jim Kelly whenever George Lazenby or Bob Minor was on the screen [...]." FCU was also not taken by the ladies at the ranch, complaining instead: "Truly, the women playing the whores in this masterpiece are the most tired, most beat-up, most dilapidated women ever to play whores in motion picture. Real live crack whores are insulted by them." Death Dimension proved to be the last film to feature Jim Kelly in a part of note... perhaps he decided that he couldn't sink any lower and that life as a tennis instructor pays better than acting in Z-films.

Mr. No Legs
(1979, dir. Ricou Browning)
Let's talk about names for a moment, using two Afro-American as examples: Barack Obama and Jim Kelly. In the US, at least, the former is surely a rare name and the latter much more common. Thus, you can pretty much be sure that if you see the name "Barack Obama" written somewhere, the person in question is probably the highly disillusioning President of the United Stasi of America. In turn, if you see the name "Jim Kelly" written somewhere, you really cannot initially be 100% sure that the man in question is the handsome, ass-kicking but thespian-challenged actor from the seventies — shit, if you get down to it, going by just the name you really can't be sure that the man in question is Afro-American at all.

All the more so when the "Jim Kelly" mentioned should be found in Florida, a state where — as the George Zimmerman case just once again proved — one is more or less allowed to harass and then shoot innocent black people for no reason (other than their being black) and get away with it, because as long as you yourself are not black you are only standing your ground. Thus, we here at A Wasted Life have serious doubts that the "Jim Kelly" of all the previously mentioned films above is the same "Jim Kelly" listed somewhere in the credits of this movie — but, what the heck, imdb (alone) lists it as one of his credits and that gives us an excuse to present it, so here it is: Mr. No Legs, one of the low points of the careers of everyone involved. Imdb fails to list which character Kelly plays, so whichever "Jim Kelly" is really there, it would seem that he didn't play any role of note. But what a film: Mr No Legs is a "classic" of crappy grindhouse trash that swerves from no-budget regional flotsam into what-were-they-thinking exploitation of the kind that brought us Terror of Tiny Town (1938 / full film) and Chained for Life (1951 / full film), to name two much older similar "classics". (As is evident by the poster below, the name of the movie was later changed to take advantage of the exploitive aspect offered by the secondary character.)
Director Ricou Browning began his film career playing (uncredited) the Gillman in the water scenes of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954 / trailer), The Revenge of the Creature (1955 / trailer) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956 / trailer) before finding his rent-paying niche as producer / writer / director of Flipper... but he occasionally delved into less admirable but more entertaining affairs, such as the horror film Island Claws (1980 / scary scene [not]), which he co-wrote, and this unique specimen of a movie, which is to date his final directorial credit. Cult Movies explains the plot: "[...] Buddy detectives Andy (Ron Slinker) and Chuck (Richard Jaeckel of The Green Slime [1968 / trailer], Chosen Survivors [1974 / trailer], Grizzly [1976 / German trailer / full film] and The Dark [1979 / trailer]) become embroiled in a gangland drug running scheme following the death of Andy's sister, whose boyfriend seems to have been dealing drugs for notorious crime lord D'Angelo (Lloyd Bochner of The Night Walker [1964 / trailer] and The Dunwich Horror [1970 / trailer]). However, Chuck and Andy's investigation soon places them in the firing line of D'Angelo's chief henchmen Lou (aka — Mr. No Legs [Ted Vollrath]) a homicidally violent mob enforcer, who despite having lost both his legs in an explosion, still dispenses death via a combination of his uniquely modified wheelchair and his surprising martial arts skills. However, it appears that Lou has his own designs on taking over D'Angelo's crime empire; meanwhile a new danger presents itself to Chuck and Andy when it gradually becomes clear that someone in a senior position within the police force is feeding insider information to D'Angelo. [...]" Cult Movies rather likes the movie and goes on to say: "[...] Browning's film as a highly entertaining and unjustly ignored low budget seventies exploitation number. The plot is simple and is kept moving at a spirited face as Browning generously lays on the action which includes numerous shootings, death by samurai sword, a riotous barroom brawl involving women, fat black bartenders, a drag queen and women which culminates in a double stabbing and an extended climactic car chase which wouldn't seem out of place in a much higher budgeted mainstream picture." Perhaps, however, it should be pointed out that despite the title and the poster, Mr. No Legs is a secondary character and, unlike the later advertising would have you believe, is not the focus of the movie.

(1994, dir. Cirio H. Santiago)
Stranglehold Trailer:
Assuming that the "Jim Kelly" seen somewhere in Mr No Legs is indeed the karate master himself, after Florida Jim Kelly seems to have left the film business: according to imdb, but for a brief appearance in 1985 on TV as a reporter in an episode of Michael Landon's Christian-themed TV series Highway to Heaven (1984–1989), Kelly was out of the business for 15 years. In 1994, however, he suddenly and inexplicitly reared his head again and appeared in a totally unimportant small part as an "Executive" in two Cirio H. Santiago films, Ultimatum and Stranglehold, which were shot in tandem and are pretty much the same film but with certain actors exchanged: Ultimatum was meant for the Philippine market, and has mostly Filipino actors, while Stranglehold was meant for stateside direct-to-video release, and has direct-to-video calibre actors.
Philippine-born director/producer Cirio H. Santiago (18 January 1936-26 September 2008), of whom Quentin Tarantino is said to be a big fan, was an extremely prolific producer and director of low budget films; he made his first films, straight Philippine projects, already in the 50s, and by the 70s he was working for Roger Corman. Among his numerous projects of varying quality are TNT Jackson (1974 / trailer / full film), Ebony, Ivory & Jade (1976 / trailer), The Muthers (1976 / trailer), Vampire Hookers (1978 / trailer), Firecracker (1981 / trailer), Stryker  (1983 / opening), Naked Vengence (1985 / trailer) and Equalizer 2000 (1987 / trailer) and many, many more — he was, to put it simply, a prolific maker of crappy and craptastic films. Ultimatum, like Stranglehold, is more of the former than the latter.
 Cirio H. Santiago does Blaxploitation: Savage! (1973) —
Jim Kelly ain't in the flick:
The plot of Stranglehold, as given by Concorde — New Horizons at imdb: "Deep inside the nation's top chemical weapons facility, a brilliant terrorist (Vernon Wells  of Silent Night, Zombie Night [2009] and a lot more) takes a Congresswoman (Jillian McWhirter of Progeny [1999]) hostage. The Navy can't stop him. The Air Force can't reach him. The Coast Guard can't kill him. Only one man can do the job: special agent Ryan Cooper (Jerry Trimble of Skeleton Man [2004]). He's in a race against time to save the world, facing his greatest challenge yet!" Direct to Video Connoisseur says: "This was a huge waste. Jerry Trimble, amazing kickboxer, and the director has him running around with an assault rifle the whole time. Trimble tried valiantly to pull it off, but that's not how he gets down. He looked like a fish out of water. Now, with Trimble in an extremely limited martial arts capacity, we're stuck with a low-rent Die Hard ripoff. For a film with a 70-minute running time, it felt like I was watching it for three hours."
Ultimatum Trailer:

Undercover Brother
(2002, dir. Malcolm D. Lee)

 "Today is a great day for black people of all races."
The Chief (Chi McBride)


Eight years after Kelly's brief appearance in two sub-standard Cirio H. Santiago movies, he popped up in a cameo in this fantastic comedy here — sorta. His scene with Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) ended up getting deleted and is only to be seen as an extra on the DVD release. What the fuck, watch the film anyways, it's not just super funny but has one of the greatest soundtracks around. The plot of this Blaxploitation parody, as mentioned earlier, is based on an idea already explored in an early and real and classic Blaxploitation film featuring Jim Kelly, Gordon Parks Jr.'s Three the Hard Way (1974). 
The plot, in short: "The Man" has discovered a secret formula to rob Brothers of their soul and the secret agency the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. calls on Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) to stop him. Denis Richards (of Valentine [2001]) plays one of the Man's secret weapon White She Devil ("Black Man's kryptonite"), Chris Kattan (of Undead or Alive: A Zombedy [2007 / trailer], Santa's Slay [2005 / trailer] and House on Haunted Hill [1999 / trailer]) plays the Man's evil flunky Mr. Feather, and the beautiful Aunjanue Ellis kicks butt and catfights as Sistah Girl. Undercover Brother gets hearty recommendations from us here at A Wasted Life, and it is even fit for mixed company... or at least the kind of mixed company we get at home.
Undercover Brother — General Fried Chicken:

Baadasssss Cinema
(2002, dir. Isaac Julien)
Jim Kelly appears in some of the archive footage used in this 60-minute documentary on Blaxploitation by the London-born Afro-English artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien. Movie Mania explains the flick: "Baadasssss Cinema is a documentary that discusses the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, and particularly looks at the post popular films such as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song [1971], Shaft [1971 / trailer], Black Caesar [1973 / trailer], Superfly [1972 / trailer] and Coffy [1973]. People interviewed include Fred Williamson, Mario Van Peebles, Quentin Taratino and the lovely Pam Grier, who talk about the impact that the films had on the black community and on popular culture. [...] Baadasssss Cinema also briefly goes into detail about the Blaxploitation crossovers that happened as well, such as the Blaxploitation/horror films like Blacula (Dracula's black soul brother) and also the Blaxploitation/kung fu crossovers. It was very interesting and gave me a hunger to see more of these incredible Blaxploitation films." To Movie Mania we can only warn: "Better watch out! Once you black, you don't comeback."
First 14:12 minutes:

Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered and Shafted
(2004 writ. & dir. David F. Walker)
Jim Kelly appears for real as one of the "I was there" talking heads on this documentary by independent filmmaker David F. Walker about not just Blaxploitation, but the history of blacks in US American motion pictures. The film, though screened at various festivals, seems to have fallen between the cracks somewhere as it is hard to find. Brown Paper Tickets the film: "Popular and controversial, outrageous and profound, few film genres are as misunderstood as Blaxploitation. Examining the meaning and the history of black films of the 1970s, David Walker's documentary Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered & Shafted seeks to give the Blaxploitation film its proper place in cinematic history. Featuring interviews with crucial players like Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Ron O'Neal, Rudy Ray Moore, Jim Kelly, and many more, Walker's film offers an insightful look at a pivotal moment in American popular culture that would forever change how black were portrayed in film."
First nine minutes:

Afro Ninja
 (2009, dir. Mark Hicks)
Aka Afro Ninja: Destiny.  The directorial debut of stuntman Mark Hicks, who has been taking other people's bruises since 1988; among the many films he' worked on are Spawn (1997), From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (1999) and Hatchet (2006 / trailer). Somewhere along the way, he tried out for a Nike commercial and fell flat on his face while executing a backflip; the video of the event went viral.
Afro Ninja Does a Backflip and Fails:
Somewhere along the way Hicks decided to make a film around the viral video, and the result is his directorial début, this direct-to-DVD homage to Afro-American ass-kickers — and, going by his hair and abs, to Jim Kelly as well. Kelly even makes a rare brief guest appearance in the movie, his last as it would be, as the ghost of Afro Ninja's father.
The plot, according to DVD Verdict, which is of the opinion that Afro Ninja "is a barely competent misfire, but a misfire shot with limited means and its heart in the right place": "The movie tells the tale of sadsack postal worker Reggie Washington (Mark Hicks), who becomes a national joke/folk hero when video of his clumsy martial arts battle against a gun-wielding, shell-shocked crackhead hits the internet and late night talk shows. Soon after, an encounter with an aged Japanese woman and a pair of glowing nunchucks endows the formerly flabby Washington with washboard abs, a giant 'fro, and astounding fighting abilities. When local thug and sneaker pimp Black Lightning (James Black of Zombie Cop [1991 / trailer]) shakes down Washington's soul food restaurant-owning Aunt Mary (Marla Gibbs of Sweet Jesus, Preacherman [1973 / trailer]), the Afro Ninja must spring into action to protect his neighborhood." Film Critics United says: "[...] We're not saying that Afro Ninja was perfect as there was some inconsistent pacing on occasion [but...] Afro Ninja was a pretty darned entertaining little film with some nicely choreographed fight scenes [...]. A very well crafted, low bud homage to a pair of genres that time has long forgot that I think seriously needs to be brought back."

Jim Kelly — May He Kick Butt in the Sky

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